The sheep suddenly scatter left to right up the field across the dapply pasture, and as I round the field edge I see why. Vernon Phipps and his dog are walking up towards me. Vernon's a little younger than I am. Rugged, fit and ruddy of face, he looks the way you'd expect a sheep farmer to look. I ask him if the sheep belong to him. They do. How many has he got? Lots. What's it like as a job? He laughs...good days and bad days. And has life in Culworth changed very much? It's pretty much the same. This is rather reassuring. But later, when I look up his name on the web, I learn of a dreadful day in 2011 when Vernon discovered rustlers had shot and carried away some of his flock. They couldn't remove as many as they'd killed, and he had to clean up, and bury the dead. I can only imagine it was a bad financial loss, and a huge emotional blow. I remember a conversation with a sheep farmer of about the same age in Kent and the evident affection he had for the animals he'd birthed and reared. I was polemical about some farmers in my previous post. It needs saying that the majority are the beating heart of our countryside, and that gratitude should be the lot of the Vernons of this world. I hope their sons and daughters are able to afford to follow in their stead.
It's rather a lovely day. A band of overnight rain has swept through, and now it's calm, quiet and warm, although the grass will stay wet all day. Compared to last autumn, this one's distinctly soggy. The other side of the old railway the paths are mostly well-marked on the diagonal across the fields. At one point I duck into a ravine through a small bog caused by a spring, and cross the infant Rover Cherwell on a plank bridge where there's a life buoy - there's a small, apparently permanent campsite a hundred metres away. On the far side of the stream is the rise to Eydon. First one sees the Big House through the trees to the left, and then there's a short path up to St. Nicholas' church, which is open.
Inside there's an old-fashioned, handsome bier, as might once have been drawn by a horse. It's not unusual to find them in the corner of country churches, but I feel I've seen quite a few in this neck of the county. Are they still used? Perhaps they are from time to time. I'm also rather touched by the simplicity of the few chairs arranged around the altar in St. Nicholas' side chapel, and of course think of the text about the 'two or three gathered together'. I can't see any heating in the church around me, and even on this benign day it strikes me as chilly. How would I feel about my worship if I were cold most of the time I was doing it? Well, actually this is a rhetorical question. I find it well-nigh impossible. This poses a personal challenge insofar as while I'm fit and warm and in the prime of life I know I must do my best to wholeheartedly worship God because when I'm old, ill and fragile, I'm afraid I won't have the spiritual staying power to connect when I perhaps most need it. But cutting away from that individual perspective, finding a way to heat our churches adequately is often a struggle, and perhaps ought to be more of a priority. From time to time last winter I played the organ in a barn of a building where I constantly shivered and shook for reasons other than spiritual ecstasy, except when I was actually on the organ stool, where a large sheet of chipboard shielded me from being charred to a cinder by the fierce heat emitting from the radiator running at my back.
My Glaswegian father-in-law would have been justified in describing Eydon (appropriately pronounced 'Eden') as a 'doozy' - meaning something outstanding or extraordinary. It's a little rectangular shaped village of about four to five hundred people sitting at 550 feet with a stonking view out towards Moreton Pinkney and Canons Ashby to the east. The architectural range within the village is impressive and beautiful, and there's every reason to believe that Eydon is imbued with a community spirit to match the splendour of its rural craftsmanship. I'm first into the pub after it opens at lunchtime, and am followed in by a man over whose genial German Shepherd I have to step repeatedly when ordering my GB or using the facilities. We say 'how do', particularly when I have to re-enter the bar to collect the hat I've left behind. Eydon not only has a Morris side but a Mummers group too, because the village has its own Mummers' Play. I wonder if they perform it in the church? The acoustic in St. Nicholas' is a marvel all of itself.
I pick up the Macmillan Way which has very sensibly included Eydon on its scenic walkers' route from far away Lincolnshire to distant Dorset, and follow the bridleway back down to the Cherwell, and then up the other side of the river valley until the Jurassic Way runs in from the north-east to join us. I tell myself that I should remember the path - I certainly walked here some years ago - but it rings no bells until I've descended to the 'Welsh Road' (the other locus of predation by the Culworth Gang). Then looking behind me my memory's jogged by the shape of the hill and the loneliness of the largely discarded lane, once so important to the local rural economy. Across the field I pass through the spinney where sit the rather creepy remain of the huts and shelters which once served the wartime Chipping Warden airfield. On the sunny far side a song happens, and I sit on a bench to write a first-draft lyric about late-flowering love into my I-phone, hoping that when I need to later, I'll be able to remember the tune that's playing in my head. I'm looking for a final song for the album I'm recording with friend Brendan, and maybe this is it. The musical sequence (I'm old-fashioned enough to want our album not just to be a random collection of songs - like, man, a concept album ?) is too maudlin as it stands: we need something positive and cheerful with three chords to finish things off. In the pub down the road I find the same bloke with the German Shepherd I encountered in Eydon. He looks a bit sheepish, as if I have him pegged as a toper. He explains too quickly that they serve food in Chipping Warden: new management means you can't get anything to eat in Eydon. Yeah, yeah, I say. And order my second GB of the day.
There's an air of faded grandeur, a certain...atmosphere...about SS Peter and Paul, Chipping Warden. It's a large building in an imposing position. I can't get in, but beat its bounds. It's one of those encounters which leaves me hoping that everything's all right with the place, but unsure that it is. A gentleman unloads the boot of his car by the church, whistling the Old Rugged Cross, a curious counterpoint.
My walk will take me up to Edgcote House, and by the gates on its drive there's a sign which explains that this point marks the beginning of the 'Battlefields Trail'. The trail describes a semicircle past the site of the War of the Roses' Battle of Edgcote, before moving west towards Cropredy Ridge and Edge Hill, where two Civil War battles were fought.
I know a lot of people are really enthusiastic about military history. Me, I'm ambivalent. You can't really 'do' history without understanding who won what when. But I never want to become desensitised to the horrors of war, and suspect some of being too 'objective' just because these events are way in our past. I think it doesn't sit well to be too jolly about atrocities, whenever they were committed. This can of course raise problems when reading the Old Testament. When we returned from our first visit to Israel in 1977, at a time of tension in the Middle East, our consciousness had admittedly been raised somewhat - armed presence at one kibbutz gig, and another performance brought forward because of shooting at the theatrical lighting during a previous evening etc. etc. Back in Blighty, the first hymn the following Sunday was 'Who is on the Lord's side?' and I remember getting very cross at the maintenance of military metaphor by a Northampton congregation who seemed very comfortable and complacent in their own security, thank you. This was unfair of me, but my sensitivity remains, even in the face of Paul's injunction to put on the 'whole armour of God'. I get it, just about, but wish we could find better word pictures. As if to point up these matters, a few hundred metres further on there's a quiet memorial to the crew of a Wellington bomber, who didn't quite make it back to base, crashing a couple of miles from their destination with the loss of six crew.
Hard by Edgcote House, the handsome little church (very close to Chipping Warden's) isn't open either. Three men with cameras will be similarly disappointed. It's Graham, Lewis and, goodness gracious, Andrew, who worships at our own St. Peter's in Weston Favell, twenty five miles away. They go out to walk every Thursday. We swap info about routes and pubs. Edgcote is very photogenic. Round the back of the House is the Mill, where it looks as if the water-wheel's still in working condition, and further on is the intriguing Roman site at Blackgrounds where a bath house was discovered in 1849, though fears were thereafter expressed for its continued integrity because of ploughing. I can see two possible locations for it on the slightly higher ground overlooking the stream and close to the springs there. The most likely looks to be some considerable bumps in a field which is now fallow (and has been for some time?)
Another wayside legend shortly tells me I'm near the Edgcote battlefield (or Danesmoor, as it's sometimes called). We're talking 1469, we're talking Edward IV (he of wooing and then marrying Elisabeth Woodville near Grafton Regis), we're talking Shakespeare's impossibly bloody, nay unwatchable, Henry VI, although I can't remember whether it's part I, II, or III. This is England as Afghanistan, riddled with internecine strife and double dealing, the playground of warlords. Pembroke is for the King, Warwick for the rebels. Warwick wins the day. Pembroke and his henchmen lose the battle because of treachery on July 26th, and are executed on the 27th. When the event is commemorated these days, a wreath is laid to the fallen at Trafford Bridge over which I now walk.
As I pass beneath the railway arch on green Banbury Lane, I disturb whole families of pheasants which chuck chuck noisily up and away from their hidey hole on the overgrown banks. A hundred metres or so up the track I nod to a young woman and her nine year old son who are having a short post-school ride. They've seen the birds scatter, and she's telling him about the game pie she'll make for the family at Christmas. They turn at the bottom by the bridge and walk the horses up past me again, still talking about the meal. I say, 'I think I'm coming to your house on Christmas Day!' ' Sounds delicious, doesn't it?' the young woman answers with a laugh. Culworth. Peaceful. Normal.
Stats man. 18 km. 6 hrs. 20 degrees. Sun. 7 stiles. 12 gates. 4 bridges. Kumar Sangakkara: over 2100 runs in all matches for Surrey this season, and averaging nearly a hundred. A master batsman of impeccable technique: feisty during his early career, statesmanlike later on. Perhaps a career to come in Sri Lankan politics?
Let me flame red in the autumn of my years.
May my opinions remain sharp:
Tempered with kindness and wisdom.
Let me not be conservative
Because I am frightened
But may I dare to believe the impossible
And so follow
The calling you have gifted us.